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IF COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS THE NFL, THE ATHLETES DESERVE SALARIES
The ideals of academia are lost when media companies pay $8 billion to the Big Ten, creating a culture where money is everything — so, why not for the players who generate the staggering revenues?
How thoughtful of Kevin Warren, the man who officially took the college out of football, to acknowledge the continued existence of an “academic year.” He did so in announcing the Big Ten’s seven-year rights agreements with a mob of drooling, hyperventilating media partners, the conspirators who will pay the conference and its 16 universities — for now, as the Notre Dame leprechaun clears his throat — an ungodly $8 billion-plus.
The new windfall, says the power-brokering commissioner, will “service our students in a highly productive manner, allowing them to get a world-class education but be treated in a manner that they rightfully deserve.”
Pause here for a communal cringe, followed by rampant laughter.
As we continue to absorb a financial disruption that has swallowed a Saturday religion, turning what once was a celebration of youth into a double-superpower form of the NFL, please stop the rhetoric about student-athletes. It’s absurd to think the new weekend monster — the Big Ten and SEC as Godzilla and Kong, the remaining stragglers gasping for air and leftover TV dollars — will have any relationship with academia. Now that the leagues, networks and coaches have grabbed their fortunes, it’s only proper that the athletes grab their own beyond a currently limited NIL scope.
Classwork? Amid the transformation to full-blown professional football, the only education pursued by campus-bound athletes now should involve the lessons of American capitalism. At present, the most coveted already are paid via NIL sources both scrupulous (some) or roguish (more). But as I write, lawyers and employment wonks are screaming the obvious: With billions pouring in, why isn’t every member of these revenue-generating programs being compensated from the TV pots of gold? When will schools start classifying their servants as paid employees? Per projections, each Big Ten university will receive between $80 million to $100 million annually through decade’s end. Thanks to an obsolete deal signed with ESPN/ABC two years ago, amid the unknowns of an emerging pandemic, the SEC will distribute an estimated $55 million-$70 million to each school until the next negotiation. (Let folks in Tuscaloosa and Athens seethe over the bad-timing quirk that Rutgers and Illinois will pull in more annually than the sport’s behemoths.) Point being, the stars making seven figures at present through NIL deals are young businessmen with no urgency to care about biology, psychology and Shakespeare. And in the context of the blockbuster media deals, the NIL sums won’t be viewed as sufficient — because they aren’t.
Share the wealth. That is the subtext worthy of our constant focus.
“I definitely think it should be shared. The new college world is turning around, and I’m here for it,” Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud said of the TV jackpot, understandable when he’ll be a leading figure this season as a Heisman Trophy candidate on a top-ranked team. “I’m not sure 100 percent sure what our tuition is, but I’m sure it’s not the worth of what we’re actually worth. My mom has always told me to know my worth.”
He feels like a pro as it is, playing in a pressure cooker in a state that doesn’t treat the Buckeyes like a college team. “We put in so much work. All the time that goes into it, it's definitely tough. Then you take time away from your family. I’m 2,000 miles away from home,” said Stroud, who hails from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. “I don’t want anybody to feel bad for me, but at the same time, it does take a lot of courage, it does take a lot of heart, to be here day in and day out.”
We’re being whisked into a period where the college sports experience becomes an immediate money stab for everyone, from the star quarterback to the third-string linebacker, from the basketball studs who haven’t gone to an NBA developmental league — what will Bronny James and his activist father demand from USC or Oregon? — to female swimmers and gymnasts.
Pep rally for the big game? Big lecture at the auditorium? Screw it. The athletes have money to make, investments to explore, brands to build, TikTok ventures to launch. If you think, moving forward, that college sports factories ever again will require a minimum grade-point average to maintain eligibility — those days are ancient history. Universities are sports money-makers first, educators second. Already dwarfed by massive stadiums that routinely seat more than 100,000 fans, classroom buildings more than ever are reduced to background visuals for the Goodyear blimp.
“Whoa, Nelly!” the late Keith Jackson would say, assuming he’d want any part of evolution.
The great avalanche of 2022 will be remembered for media companies setting the agenda and creative avenues for unimaginable riches, which is appropriate for the NFL and other pro leagues. Throwing around obscene amounts, without paying players as employees, continues to be tantamount to slavery. The NIL system rewards only a select few, and no consistency is attached to which players are paid how much. Compensation truly depends on the sizes of donor pools — which institutions have the most wealthy boosters with the most disposable millions to pay football players. By that metric, the University of Southern California never should lose a game. And don’t think for a second that the resource-bloated machine, despite recent claims, will stonewall a standalone, third-party booster collective that wants to pay all eligible players “the equivalent of a base salary.” Athletic director Mike Bohn expressed concern that the collective, called Student Body Right, would run afoul of the NCAA. Was he kidding? The NCAA has been castrated. Any collective can do what it wants — ask John Ruiz, who has paid more than 100 players at the University of Miami. No payment is too high. Which is why new USC coach Lincoln Riley changed course days after Bohn spoke.
“Listen, this is new for all of us. It’s still evolving in all kinds of places, all over the country, and I’m confident we’ll be able to bring everyone together and make sure it’s one united effort,” said Riley, already eyeing a national title after an offseason filled with transfer-portal bounties, including NIL-gilded quarterback Caleb Williams.
Crucified during the pandemic, when he received death threats for originally deciding to forgo the 2020 season, Warren suddenly is considered a hero in Big Ten country and a potential heir to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. An $8 billion-plus haul changes perceptions quickly. He was smart enough to heed the urges of Fox to create the Bigger Ten, a wish stemming from the network’s rivalry with ESPN. Every step of the way over decades, Fox has lost the sports media wars with its Disney counterpart. This time, Warren sensed how he could use the grudge to his advantage. With the push from Los Angeles, he added USC and UCLA, extending the league borders coast to coast, from metropolitan New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. By geographical and social comparison, the SEC looks like a Waffle House league, stretching from South Carolina to central Texas, with Mississippi and Arkansas in between. I realize the SEC has won 12 of the last 16 national championships, with the Big Ten sneaking in only when Ohio State won in 2014. But if money is the main objective, and the trophy secondary, the mighty SEC has sunk to No. 2 … thanks to Warren.
So if he’s ultra-powerful, why not push the envelope for paying players at the university level? Didn’t Warren admit he was trying to create an NFL-style media paradigm, based on his experience in the league as a Minnesota Vikings executive? He stirred the network passions by giving Fox first dibs on Ohio State-Michigan and the weekly noon ET slot … by assuring CBS its traditional 3:30 p.m. slot after abandoning the SEC … and urging NBC to create a Saturday night fever similar to its enormous Sunday night NFL success. “The Big Ten is going to be on three major television networks from noon until 11 o’clock at night every Saturday — that is unprecedented,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told The Athletic. “The way that each of the three broadcast partners are going to feed into each other and cross-promote each other throughout the day is going to be very beneficial for all.”
Said Warren: “One thing I really admire about the NFL is, they have done a really good job of creating brand creativity and fan avidity. The way you do that is, you have to make it as simple as possible for fans to find the content they’re looking for. With this new structure, I want fans on Thursday to start thinking about what they’re going to be doing Saturday, to know that they’ll be able to start their day with Fox and roll right into an afternoon with CBS and an evening with NBC.”
It’s time to be similarly creative for the young people on stage. “I’ve already started some dialogue with our student-athletes,” Warren said. “I want to be a great listener to figure out what is important to them. It's so easy to talk about money and share money, but what does that really mean? I want to make sure that I listen and learn to be able to have big ears and a small mouth to truly understand what's important to them.”
His ears weren’t large enough for Bryant Gumbel. On a “Real Sports” episode airing Tuesday on HBO, Warren was cross-examined, if not scolded.
Gumbel: “Everybody's getting rich now off college sports, OK? The networks are getting rich from it, the administrators are getting rich, the schools are getting rich, the coaches get rich. You know who won't be getting rich off it? The athletes. When are you gonna start paying them?”
Warren: “… We need to really sit down and start getting these issues on the table and start making some decisions.”
Gumbel: “Could you foresee paying your athletes?”
Warren: “Yes. Yeah. … Those are the things that we have to resolve. We have to. So I want to be part of this conversation, and will be part of this conversation of what we can do to make this better.”
It will take considerable time before our national vertigo begins to fade. Conference commissioners are sparring, trying to prevent more defections and negotiating for TV scraps, with some feeling backstabbed by Warren. The crossfire centered around Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who more or less called former boss Nick Saban a cheat after Saban accused Fisher of buying off an entire recruiting class, will be a major story line when the teams meet Oct. 8 at Alabama. College basketball, already feeling like a second wheel, is grasping its secondary status in the fiscal picture, with John Calipari demanding a new practice facility at Kentucky and picking a fight with football coach Mark Stoops. Ever think this would happen, Rupp Arena’s hardwood dwarfed by the football bluegrass?
And the College Football Playoff’s board of managers, recognizing the NCAA’s imminent demise, wants to take over the entire industry. The board includes 11 college presidents and chancellors. Would there be a squabble about who should have those 11 seats? Of course.
As usual, the favorites to reach the playoff are Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson, assuming Dabo Swinney hasn’t been lost in the shape-shifting like the Atlantic Coast Conference. Utah is the rooting interest for those tired of the same-old/same-old. Notre Dame has a new coach, Marcus Freeman, who may or may not be ready for the gig. The former Fighting Irish coach, Brian Kelly, is trying to win over the LSU mob with a phony Cajun accent. USC’s takeover arrogance will be nauseating.
Whatever the season brings, all I have to say is: The quality of play must be supreme, better than ever.
This is professional football, after all.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.